Miami's Top Ten Stage Shows of 2015

Betrayal
Betrayal
Photo by Justin Namon

For many American actors, it would be difficult enough to recite a lengthy soliloquy in a convincing Russian accent. But doing so while wearing sky-high heels and almost nothing else while performing acrobatics on an unsteady stripper pole mounted in the center of the stage? That's a feat of physical, mental, and emotional dexterity that, placed anywhere else in a year-in-review column, would be burying the lede.

As Masha, an exotic dancer desperate to maintain guardianship over her baby in a court system stacked against her, Lindsey Corey put on a performance that still echoes with a cerebral fire all of these weeks later. It came in Chris Demos-Brown's Stripped, at Zoetic Stage with choreography by Barbie Lazaro of Miami's Vixen Academy. Corey worked the pole like a seasoned professional, stimulating our minds as well as, you know, other places. She made that old chestnut about Ginger Rogers — that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels — seem quaint.

In the performance I attended, Corey cut herself while performing an especially taxing pole position and was noticeably bleeding from a pinprick hole in her foot. But she soldiered on, as Masha would. What's a little bloodshed when the custody of your daughter is at stake?

Almost all of Miami's best productions of 2015 involved risk-taking on a similar level, from the record-setting cast numbers and towering ambitions of Actors' Playhouse's Ragtime; to the one-room, voyeuristic intimacy of Alliance Theatre's Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune; to the confrontationally nonlinear storytelling of GableStage's Constellations; to the lived-in naturalism of New Theatre's Leveling Up!, which with an urgent melancholy explored the link from videogames to drone warfare.

There were enough of these challenging selections, mounted in productions that exceeded expectations, to fill a Top Ten list this year — but barely, and with a few reservations. If works like these represent the golden wheat of Miami stagecraft, they were surrounded mostly by chaff, as companies in Broward and Palm Beach outperformed their fellow producers down south.

The busy Actors' Playhouse's overall weak year was once again a product of a familiar mantra: selection, selection, selection. An occasional lightweight comedy is OK for balance, but this year we endured five in a row — First Date, The Book Club Play, Unnecessary Farce, The Toxic Avenger, and The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge. The humor in most of these shows was of a lowest-common-denominator baseline. Only The Toxic Avenger, thanks to one of the year's most inspired scenic designs and performances of remarkably heedless abandon, was able to transcend the empty calories of its source. In the other shows, enjoyment was limited to a sparkling performance here, an assured directorial decision there, each of them equivalent to attractive filigree on otherwise ugly buildings.

Constellations
Constellations
Photo by George Schiavone

In other examples, the opposite mismatch doomed the show: The material may have been solid, but the production didn't land quite right. DreamCatcher Theatre shot for the moon but barely reached the sky during its inaugural floundering of Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Arsht Center. An overacted lead, sound and lighting miscues, and a leaden second act bore little resemblance to the sparkling charm of this postmodern musical. GableStage's Choir Boy, an experimental play with music by Tarell Alvin McCraney, probably needed McCraney's hand as director to elicit the theatrical fireworks that existed in there somewhere; Joseph Adler's take seemed more mannered and tamped-down than GableStage's previous McCraney collaborations. Even Adler's production of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which did make our Top Ten because it's quite simply the best script presented on any South Florida stage all year, fell a smidgen short, missing the heart-stopping ferocity that the play encourages.

Nothing all year was quite as spectacularly bad as Mad Cat's pseudo-futuristic, irony-oozing production of the Neil Simon clunker The Star-Spangled Girl, a show so far outside the stratosphere of goodness that it was almost great, like an Ed Wood film or an Andy Kaufman performance-art project. It's been a nearly a year since director Paul Tei remixed Simon's dated play about politics and patriotism with pop-music interludes, a robotic title performance, and a live band instrumentally commenting on the action, yet it lingers in my memory more than the legions of handsomely competent productions I've seen since.

Just as with last year, a small cluster of companies continued to produce the few unequivocally masterful productions of the year. Zoetic's spartan reimagining of Harold Pinter's reverse-chronology classic Betrayal tops the list. The play was jazzy and judgmental when it needed to be and favored the appearance of an existential void over a sense of a physical place. Stuart Meltzer found profundity in the spaces between Pinter's acidic words, drawing a career-best performance from Chaz Mena.

For GableStage, the showier acting exercises such as the solo monologue I'll Eat You Last and the drag dramedy Casa Valentina paled alongside Adler's more vigorously intellectual choices. A blistering, blustering performance from Abdiel Vivancos as the persecuted 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza sparked a dynamite production of David Ives' New Jerusalem, which played out like a riveting courtroom drama in which the stakes — the freedom to believe or not believe — seemed both ancient and prescient. Constellations was likewise a triumph of the metaphysical mind, rendering ethereal concepts of quantum theory with the practiced playfulness of well-executed theater games, turning around single scenes more times than a Rubik's Cube.

If there was an especially bright spot shining in an otherwise lackluster year, it was the re-emergence of Summer Shorts as a collection that was unified, hilarious, and artful. There were outrageous slapstick sketches, subtle character studies, and everything in between. In a year when nearly every company could find room for improvement, Summer Shorts got the last laugh.

Miami's Top Ten Stage Shows of 2015

1. Betrayal, Zoetic Stage

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2. Constellations, GableStage

3. Summer Shorts, City Theatre

4. Stripped, Zoetic Stage

5. Ragtime, Actors' Playhouse

6. Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune, Alliance Theatre

7. New Jerusalem, GableStage

8. Leveling Up!, New Theatre

9. The Toxic Avenger, Actors' Playhouse

10. Disgraced, GableStage

Use Current Location

Related Locations

miles
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

1300 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

305-949-6722

www.arshtcenter.org

miles
GableStage at the Biltmore

1200 Anastasia Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33134

305-446-1116

www.gablestage.org

miles
Alliance Theatre Lab
miles
Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre

280 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL 33134

305-444-9293

www.actorsplayhouse.org

miles
New Theatre

8567 Coral Way
Miami, FL 33155

305-443-5909

www.new-theatre.org


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